PORTLAND — The Passamaquoddy tribe, which believes natural resources belong to all tribal members and not individuals, is going to try to submit emergency legislation aimed at eliminating individual fishing quotas mandated for the upcoming elvers season.
The tribe negotiated a deal with the Maine Department of Marine Resources that called for the tribe to have an overall quota of 1,650 pounds, but no individual quotas. The deal was ultimately scrapped after the attorney general raised constitutional concerns and legislation signed by the governor mandates quotas for all fishermen.
The tribe plans to go to the legislative council Monday to seek permission to submit an emergency bill.
“I can’t sit here and accept things the way they are without putting up a fight,” said Indian Township Chief Joseph Socobasin. A joint tribal meeting also will be held Monday to discuss the situation, he said.
Elvers are baby eels that have ballooned in value in recent years to become the second most valuable fishery in the state behind lobster. Last year’s catch was worth $33 million.
The tribe is disappointed that the deal it negotiated over several months was rejected. The deal also called for the tribe to use mostly dip nets instead of funnel nets to catch elvers.
The attorney general advised that setting different rules for state and tribal fishermen could run afoul of the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution. But the tribe contends the equal protection clause doesn’t apply because the tribe represents a different political class that can negotiate its own agreements with the state.
At this point, the Department of Marine Resources wants to put the issue behind it.
“This issue has already been debated by the Marine Resources Committee and we were unable to support it because of the constitutional issues raised by the attorney general’s office and the department’s position has not changed,” spokesman Jeff Nichols said Friday.
The disagreement in the Legislature delayed approval of an emergency bill, contributing to Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher’s decision to delay the start of the season from March 22 to April 6.
The delay will give the state time to set catch limits for fishermen and gather information from the tribes about individual quotas. The state plans to issue electronic swipe cards for fishermen to record their sales to dealers, so the tribe would be unable to sell elvers if it doesn’t follow the state’s terms.
Socobasin said the goal is to find a resolution that keeps the tribe on good terms with the state and law enforcement officials and “doesn’t put tribal members in harm’s way.”